From “The Ethics Incompleteness Principle” Files: Anomalies And The Boston Red Sox Uniform Number Retirement Standards

The Ethics Incompleteness Principle argues that no rule works in all circumstances, so you have to be alert to when making exceptions is appropriate. The concept is illustrated by how the Boston Red Sox retire uniform numbers.

I will explain…

Major League Baseball teams retire the uniform numbers of players who they want to honor in perpetuity. The number is displayed somewhere in the ballpark, and no player on that team can ever wear it again.

Doing this requires standards, however, or else the honor becomes diluted and the retired numbers include those that seem increasingly strange and arbitrary as time goes by. The New York Yankees have retired so many uniform numbers that no single digit will ever again grace the back of a Yankee star. Moreover, several of the individuals who sanctified those numbers include players who never were and never will be called “great,” like Bernie Williams, who led the league in exactly one category, once, in his entire career, and whose Similarity Score index contains all very good but not great outfielders, the most similar being Paul O’Neil, a former Yankee star whose uniform is not retired. Another retired Yankee uniform number is that of Roger Maris, who only played for the Yankees for six years, many of them unremarkable. Having one’s uniform retired in the Bronx along with those of Babe, Lou, Mickey and Joe appears to mean “Somebody in charge really liked him.”

Well, at least that’s a standard that is easy to maintain.

The Boston Red Sox, in contrast, were not going to have a retired uniform glut. The franchise established an iron set of criteria for the honor, with three prongs:

1. The player must be an inarguable Red Sox great who played at least 10 years with the team.

2. The player must be an elected member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

3. The player must retire as a member of the Red Sox.

Today the Red Sox are retiring the number of David Ortiz, who retired himself at the end of last season. While he might well be voted into the Hall of Fame, he may not, for complex and controversial reasons. The Red Sox, who could reasonably argue that Ortiz has been the most popular and important player in the team’s history (though Ted Williams was the best) rightly concluded that to delegate to the  Hall of Fame voters the determination of whether Ortiz’s #34 would be retired with lesser Boston heroes made no sense. Thus his uniform number will momentarily obliterate that second prong, which had already been waived once. In that case, the beneficiary was Johnny Pesky, a classic anomaly and line-blurrer.

Pesky was a great player, a shortstop, who lost several years of playing time due to World War II service.  He only played six years as an everyday player and six years with the Red Sox, but was a lifetime .300 hitter. He also was a Red Sox manager, coach, broadcaster, good will ambassador and coach emeritus, still wearing the team’s uniform in his 80’s. pesky was also the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. He was one of the three team mates of Ted Williams (Bobby Doer, Dom DiMaggio and Pesky, all great players in their primes) who remained close friends and who are collectively honored with a statue outside of Fenway Park. Pesky was 89 and failing when the team finally put his number up in right field along with Doerr, Williams and the rest, and at the time it would have seemed cruel and ungrateful not to include him.

It was another exception, however, though not the first one.

Through 1999, the Red Sox had retired only  four numbers:  1 (for Bobby Doerr); 4 (Joe Cronin); 8 (Carl Yastrzemski); and 9 (Ted Williams), all of whom met the three criteria. Williams was the first retired, and his number looked awfully lonely, especially for a franchise that was so old and storied,and especiall in comparison with the Yankees. Nothing says “loser” quite as clearly as a visual statement that a team has only had one great player in its history, and this was neither fair nor true.

The team quickly retired the number of Joe Cronin, and within a few years added Doerr and Yastrzemski. This was in the midst of the increasingly infamous  Boston World Championship draught (that ended, thank God, in 2004), and somebody noticed that the retired numbers, lined up in the order of their retirement,  formed the date of the beginning of the last World Series the team ever won: 9/4/18. The numbers were rearranged, and a new number was added, another rule-breaker.

The most famous televised moment in team history was Carlton Fisk’s game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, capping one of the greatest games ever played. (I was there!) Fisk was also the best catcher the Red Sox ever had, and was about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Fisk, however, had played the last half of his career with the Chicago White Sox, having left Boston under bitter circumstances provoked by the cheap and tawdry Red Sox ownership at the time. Carlton is a New Englander, and wanted his apology and respect from the club. The Red Sox agreed to retire his number as they named the foul pole his home run clanked off of “Fisk Pole,” in exchange for Fisk agreeing to spurn the White Sox and have himself shown wearing a Red Sox cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Fisk, Pesky and now “Big Papi” are exceptions to the standards,* and all of them are reasonable and ethical exceptions, made in the best interests of the franchise and its history. While the standards still operate to block arbitrary, Yankee-style honors, these three retired numbers acknowledge that exceptions can be made without inviting a slippery slope. They are true anomalies, and with any rule or standard, anomalies are inevitable. The important thing is to not allow anomalies to weaken the rule’s power to do what it was designed to do, while also making sure that a good rule isn’t applied in a way that does an injustice.


*The Red Sox made another exception last year, when it held its collective nose and retired the number of Wade Boggs. Boggs flunked the third standard, retiring far away from Boston and after leaving the Red Sox for the hated Yankees. The team waited a long time to honor Boggs, who is exactly the kind of jerk for which firm standards provide the team with needed cover. (Other jerks the team want to avoid honoring: Rogger Clemens and Manny Ramirez: “Oh, yes, he deserves to have the honor, but unfortunately, he doesn’t meet the criteria!” ) Boggs embroiled the Red Sox in a sex scandal as a player, and is unpopular with the fan base after his Yankee betrayal. The team had waived the “must finish his career with the Red Sox” requirement three times, though,, with Fisk, Pesky and Pedro Martinez, Sox icons all, so there was no way to deny a Hall of Famer who had won five batting championships in his 11 years with the team, just one fewer than Ted Williams.

“Somebody in charge really hates him” is just as arbitrary as “Somebody in charge really liked him.”

11 thoughts on “From “The Ethics Incompleteness Principle” Files: Anomalies And The Boston Red Sox Uniform Number Retirement Standards

  1. I read this a couple of times last night, and then this morning. I think that it would be immeasurably improved by removal of any reference to the Yankees. Roger Maris, in particular, occupies a unique place in baseball history. I’m not much on celebrity, but if at some point I had heard that Maris was speaking nearby, I’d have made time to see him. There’s not a lot of players you could say that about.

    • Sure there are! That standard would justify retiring hundreds of players’ numbers just on the Yankees. Heck, I hate the Yankees, and I’d make time to hear Lou Pinella, Goose Gossage, Paul O’Neill, Johnny Blanchard, Tony Kubek, Bill Skowron, Ron Guidry, Al Downing, Bucky %$$#@!! Dent, Reggie, Winfield…

      You can’t talk about number retiring policies without reference to the Yankees, the most prolific number retirers in sports.

      • They’ve retired the most numbers, but it’s a function of their quality of play. I’d argue that the Yankees have been restrained in the retirement of numbers. They’ve won 27 World Series and retired 21 numbers. Of the original 16 franchises that predate both the World Series and numbered uniforms, the Yankees are one of only two that have more championships than retired numbers. The Athletics have 9 championships and only five retired numbers, but the latter number neglects old Philadelphia Athletics stars such as Lefty Grove, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Eddie Rommel, and Mickey Cochrane, and old Kansas City Royals such as Ed Charles.

        • No, that sounds logical, but it isn’t true. The Yankees have 17 players in the Hall of Fame—most don’t have their numbers retired: Lefty Gomez? Red Ruffing? Herb Pennock? Waite Hoyt? Joe Gordon? The Cardinals have 13; not that far off. Every team has several non-Hall players as good as Bernie Williams, and many, many as good or better than Billie (yechh) Martin. Over his career, Maris wasn’t as valuable as Dwight Evans, whose number isn’t retired. Ron Guidry won just 170 games. Luis Tiant was better—he’s not getting his name retired in Boston.

          The Yankees over-hype their players because of all the winning teams. It’s cognitive dissonance.

      • We would have to go to hexadecimal numbers if we retired that many. New player numbers could look like B08D and C87. Of course, then you could spell things, like on license plates:

        B3D (bed)
        and so on… 🙂

  2. I’m curious when the Red Sox made the three prong requirement. Particularly the last one. I would guess it was before the era of Free Agency, when players generally did stay with a team, and retire with them, much more often then they do now.

  3. When the rule-making institution justifiably breaks its own rules due to unforeseen exceptional conditions, is the rule-making institution not obligated then to define WHY is broke its own rules *just this once* and to then encode that exception into the rules?

    • No. Because anomalies are anomalous, and make terrible and distorting precedents. A record of the anomalies and the exceptions they occassioned may be useful, but often not.

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